Decriminalizing Drugs: A Cure to Latin America’s Ailment?

By Charles Watson

The numbers are in—and it’s overall depressing.

According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) study in 2015, a quarter of a billion people aged 15-64 admitted to being drug users; out of that number, 29.5 million were deemed to be suffering from various drug use disorders.

A quarter of a billion worldwide. And that was just three years ago.

The deaths associated with the illicit drug trade are even more horrific. In Mexico alone, there were at least 120,000 homicides, many connected with the Mexican government’s bloody war on drugs.

Anti-drug operations by state agents (some of whom have been accused of violating human rights and targeting innocent civilians), vicious turf wars among cartels, and private crimes have been tagged as main causes for the high fatality rate.

Meanwhile, the UNDOC claimed Latin America saw between 4,900-10,900 deaths due to drug-related overdoses in 2013.

In Latin America, a sizable section of the population of each country in the region have reported using or becoming addicted to various substances thanks to a relatively cheap and bountiful supply. Among the most commonly abused substances for Latin Americans are alcohol, marijuana, inhalants, and cocaine, a recent survey found.

Despite the best efforts of various countries in curbing the illicit drug trade, the rising number of body bags and crippling economic costs have made non-conventional, non-combative methods to tackle the problem more attractive than ever.

Even high officials of the UN are becoming mindful of suggestions to decriminalize drug use and possession as a long-term way of curbing the trade.

While admitting that it was a “provocative” idea, Alicia Barcena, regional head of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), argued that decriminalizing drug use would drastically reduce the number of deaths,” said Barcena, a Mexican.

“I’m going to be very provocative. Who would drug legalization be good for? Latin America and the Caribbean, for God’s sake,” said Barcena, a Mexican. “Because the illegality is what’s killing people.”

Portugal: A success story?

While traditionalists may view such a strategy with doubt or outright contempt, supporters of decriminalization often cite a country that claims to have had a successful battle with its own illegal drug demon: Portugal.

According to official government figures, since decriminalizing drug use and possession in 2001, Portugal has experienced a significant drop in drug-related illnesses and deaths. What’s more—and contrary to fears it would encourage wanton indulgence in illicit substances—the country actually saw a drop in the number of drug users coupled with an increase in people seeking treatment for their addiction.

To be clear, trafficking drugs is still criminal there. However, users—who would have in the past almost assuredly faced a lengthy sentence for possessing a gram or two—are no longer criminally charged. Instead, they are treated as patients who are sent to therapy and other intervention programs.

Dr. João Goulão, a physician who has been often described as the architect of Portugal’s revolutionary drug policy, said his country’s surprising success with the drug problem lies with treating users as patients with underlying health issues rather than as hardened criminals.

“We started from scratch when developing our policy. But throughout the process, we always considered addiction as a health issue,” he said.

Feasibility in Latin America

It remains to be seen, however, what success decriminalization would have in Latin America. Various states in the region have taken baby steps towards easing up on drug use sanctions.

Uruguay, arguably the most liberal of the bunch, legalized the production, possession, and use of marijuana in 2017.

Goulão admitted as much, saying that each country should consider its idiosyncrasies first before embarking on such a program.

Furthermore, the doctor once told the UN General Assembly that decriminalization would only be part of a multi-faceted solution to solving the drug problem.

“We don’t assume that this is the silver bullet, but in my view, it has been very important because it introduced coherence into the whole system,” Goulão said.

The United States at a crossroads

On the other hand, the United States also appears to be trending towards decriminalization—at least when it comes to cannabis.

Medical use of cannabis has been legalized in 30 states plus the District of Columbia. A further nine out of that number have even gone so far as to legalize recreational use. Another six states vote on marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in November 2018, medical and recreational.

However, while official policies on marijuana are softening, for the drugs involved in the so-called “Opioid Epidemic”, federal and state governments still seem wont to take the traditional approach: prohibition and criminalization.

Thus, fear of arrest and the approbation of those who consider addiction as a matter of weak morals keeps some from seeking intervention and rehabilitation help, even when it is readily available in treatment centers. Support for complete decriminalization of all drugs is supported by a majority of the American public but a paucity of politicians. It’s the last gasp of a failed system.

Author BIO:

Charles Watson is the current content writer for Sunshine Behavioral Health.  A lifelong head advocate, he can be reached on Twitter at @charleswatson00, or at https://www.sunshinebehavioralhealth.com.

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